Books: Too true

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Is it a memoir? Is it a novel? These

days it can be hard to tell, with the

publishing boom in narrative non-

fiction. But is this modish 'emotion

recollected on tranquillizers' a case

of lazy writers feeding off a prurient

readership, or something more?

IT WAS a phrase my father liked to use. Whenever something required rueful acknowledgement or cheerful assent, "too true" would be his response. Horrible weather today: too true. Wonderful news about X's recovery from illness: too true. Anyone feel like going down the pub? Too true. I loved hearing my father say the phrase because it was spare and self-rhyming - oxymoronic, too, though I didn't yet know the word. I'd been told (hadn't he told me himself?) that I should always strive for truth, so how could anything possibly be too true? The phrase suggested that truth wasn't the high point or ultimate goal but a state of compromise: some things were untrue, and others too true; truth lay sensibly in between. There were dizzying philosophical implications here, if I'd had a mind for them. More useful was the thought that if my parents sometimes lied to me, which I'd begun to realise they must do, it didn't necessarily make them bad people. My father spoke of "white lies", fibs told in the service of a higher good. I supposed there might also be black truths, honesties that sprang from (or resulted in) cruelty, wickedness and malice. The lesson was to try to tell truths, not too-truths.

The literature I began to read in my teens - the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Eliot and Yeats, the fiction of Joyce, Woolf and Steinbeck, the plays of Ionesco and Beckett - was a challenge to that belief. It didn't offer the customary moral justification for truth-telling, but something fiercer. Fierce, or some variation on it, was a word that kept coming up with these writers: it wasn't enough to be truthful, one had to be ferociously, uncompromisingly, recklessly so, in defiance of state tyranny or stale convention and at the risk of one's own freedom and sanity. Most of these writers were modernists, and I understood that the often fragmented and disconcerting methods of modernism - whether cubism or imagism or expressionism, whether Eliot in The Waste Land, Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring or Picasso in Guernica - were all part of a search for deeper wisdoms or sharper insights. Whether art from earlier periods had the same aspiration I wasn't sure. And even the artists in this period offered very different truths. But most, one way or another, had run into trouble, and, being a teenager, I liked the idea of that. My father, I dimly perceived, had provided a phrase to explain why certain books excited me: not because they were true, but because they were too true.

It wasn't only imaginative literature that excited me in this way. At some point in my teens, my parents started taking the Sunday Times (to add to the Daily Mail and Sunday Express). The Sunday Times, under Harry Evans's editorship, was in its heyday. Its Insight team created new standards in investigative journalism, and there were several famous exposes, including the thalidomide scandal. (My mother had once delivered a horribly deformed thalidomide baby; the issue felt close to home.) It seemed natural to pore over the colour photographs of atrocities from the Vietnam war much as I had done over Wilfred Owen's poems; or, after reading about it in the Sunday Times, to get hold of Thor Heyerdahl's bestselling account of the Kon-Tiki expedition, which I found as compelling as I had Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. No one had told me then that journalism is vulgar, ephemeral, the obverse of art. At best, it seemed to me the same, telling stories that excite and disclosing truths too close for comfort (sometimes too deep for tears as well). Whether fiction or non-fiction didn't seem to matter.

Later, when I read English literature at university and then worked as a literary journalist, I was made to understand that it does matter, greatly. On one side, the novelists I studied, or whose interviews I read, proclaimed their disdain for the lowly grubbers and hacks from (as it then was) Fleet Street. On the other side, the journalists who profiled and wrote news stories about these novelists constantly questioned their artistic integrity: it was alleged that they had plagiarised, or used "real people" as characters, or shamelessly enriched themselves. (It intrigues me that stories about publishers' advances should still command so many column inches - why should a journalist on pounds 40,000 a year find it outrageous when a novelist receives pounds 100,000 for perhaps five years' work?) Beneath the fighting and backbiting lay an old enmity, a disagreement over which side has the better claim to be telling the truth: novelists, with the subjectivity and imaginative authority of fiction, or journalists, with the objectivity and verifiability of fact.

Literature versus journalism. Fiction versus non-fiction. The picture remains one of mutual antagonism. But as a teenager I thought the categories fluid, and I still think that's nearer the truth. Many novelists, dramatists and poets (from Defoe, Whitman and Dickens to Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Brian Moore) have worked in journalism before flying free of its nets. A few have confessed to learning useful tricks there. Most continue to write for newspapers from time to time. Equally, journalists commonly refer to the articles they write as "stories", and the best journalism borrows many devices from traditional fiction. A few tabloids fly higher and more daringly still, into the realms of magical realism. Even the more scrupulous broadsheets are commonly approached with scepticism. "Never believe what you read in the papers" goes the old adage, which Malcolm Muggeridge amended when advising a young colleague "Never believe what you write in the papers". Every media studies graduate knows that reality is constructed. One can imagine a sturdy pragmatist disputing this, like Dr Johnson taking issue with the philosophy of Berkeley by kicking a stone: the Gulf war did happen; Princess Di was killed in a car crash; I refute Baudrillard thus. But even the pragmatist can't deny that when the media report events there must always be a line, an angle, a spin. In effect, a construction. Or story.

We grow up on stories. From infancy onwards, they're a means of intellectual understanding and emotional recognition, a way of making sense of the world. At some point during childhood we become aware that many stories are made up, are fairy-tales. To hear the phrase "It's only a story" is one of childhood's crushing moments, like learning Father Christmas doesn't exist. But children persist with fantasy long after the dawn of disenchantment. Adults do, too. To believe in stories is an essential human need. When Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, he helped invent the novel, but he also hoped that readers would believe his story was true. He posed, as many novelists have since, not as its author but as its editor, and presented it as "a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it". Here is an early definition of fiction: the pretence of being "a just history of fact".

In this century, as the realist tradition has lost its monopoly, much fiction has advertised its unbelievability. Magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, neo-fabulism, metafiction, "surfiction", postmodernism, the nouveau roman: these are forms that let you know "This isn't strictly - or even remotely - true". Non-realist fiction is no less concerned with reality: often it assumes the form it does (allegory, fable, satire) in order to say the unsayable, or avoid censorship, or get at truths in ways that realism (and journalism) can't. But it isn't interested in making readers think that the events described took place, that the people portrayed exist. The 18th-century and 19th-century realist novel did sometimes work this trick. There were those who fell for the delusion - just as some in this century, have fallen for Coronation Street, confused by where acting ends and life begins. Modern novelists don't expect to be taken literally. They don't want to be taken literally. It was a great shock to Western readers when The Satanic Verses was taken literally, and treated as heresy, since Salman Rushdie had called it a novel. The fatwa is a reminder of how dangerous fiction can be (to the author above all) when taken as tract or fact, when misread (or not read) by parties who find it politically useful to take offence. It's a danger other writers still face in the Third World, and that used to exist in Russia and Eastern Europe, too. But in Europe and the US now, fiction has a special licence: it's a protected area where no one need come to any harm. The contemporary reader is sophisticated and understands this. It's never forgotten that novels are made up.

But many readers, including those who enjoy fiction, do have a craving to believe. The growing interest in what's been called "narrative non- fiction" is part of the need for authenticity, sincerity, credibility - the re-suspension of disbelief. It's arguable that writers and publishers have half-created this need, not merely met the demand. There was a time when autobiographical tales would be dressed up as novels; today the label "non-fiction" makes sounder commercial sense. The memoir, a form which used to suggest genteel belle-lettrism, now promises danger and controversy. It's democratic, too, no longer the preserve of famous politicians or novelists looking back in old age but open to the "ordinary" and unknown, as Jung Chang, Nick Hornby and Frank McCourt were when they wrote (respectively) Wild Swans, Fever Pitch and Angela's Ashes. As Robert Winder pointed out in an analysis of the rise of the memoir for the magazine Granta, "bookshops now groan with confessions: criminals and addicts, abuse victims and sports fans, war heroes and domestic saints (or sinners) queue up to get their lives off their chests." Once, young writers wishing to make a mark would automatically choose fiction. Now, if it's essentially their own story they're telling, they may prefer to tell it as fact. And the editors of publishing houses would probably encourage them to do so: chances are it's more profitable to market a memoir of growing up abused in Darlington than a first novel on the same subject.

Beyond this commercial exploitation of the genre, the rise of narrative non-fiction does say something about the Zeitgeist. The memoir is the chosen form of a culture of intimacy, where what used to be secret has come out in the open and voices that used to be silent make themselves heard. There's a veneration of first-person truth-telling - and fiction, because it tells lies and/or does not allow for a simple conflation of author and narrator, has lost some of the prestige it enjoyed in the 1980s. It's no coincidence that two of the most successful books in recent years - Alan Clark's Diaries and Alan Bennett's Writing Home - have assumed that overtly candid, first-person form, the diary. The best-selling paperback of 1997 was also a diary, Bridget Jones's: it may have been both fictional and pseudonymous, but its trick was to use a discourse that's informal, self-communing and seemingly artless. Perhaps there's a feeling now that novels can't get our attention, having lost their power to surprise and shock. Or perhaps it's that we're more suspicious of the made-up than we used to be, and (temporarily) more inured to it - that we're guilty of what Doris Lessing has called "a reluctance of the imagination". Whatever the reason, narrative non-fiction - with its personal testimony, its guarantee that this actually happened - has arrived to fill a gap.

Some would say it arrived more than 20 years ago. In 1975 Tom Wolfe produced his anthology of the "New Journalism", and it was, he claims, 10 years before that when he first discovered "it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories". Others in the 1960s had made the same discovery: Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, John Didion, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson. Wolfe mentions several distinguished forerunners: Boswell, Dickens's Sketches by Boz, Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, John Hersey's Hiroshima. Even at their most subjective, however, the New Journalists and their predecessors had a documentary purpose and often made use of the third person. The present wave of narrative non-fiction is more inward, even solipsistic. The American critic James Wolcott has called the genre "the erotics of neurotics". The British novelist and literary editor Robert McCrum sees it as the modern equivalent of the war memoir: with their tales from the operating room or Freudian couch, the generation of writers born after 1945 have only inner battles to relate. They are, everyone says, "confessional".

Confessionalism has always been a disreputable genre. It depends on the sort of intimacy between writer and reader which, as Angela Carter once noted, constitutes "the narrative mode of a good deal of downmarket women's magazine fiction". It is the art of the diary, the home movie, the e-mail. Its venue is the confessional box, or the therapist's couch, or the bedroom. It is privacy for public consumption, something picked up by a hidden camera or tape recorder. It has that bottom-drawer feel, the "could do better" of the school report, as if something more estimable might have been achieved. It is, at its best, reality writing itself, but its practitioners may be made to feel that they're not "real" writers, since they've broken the rule that only by imaginatively transforming and transcending personal material can a writer achieve universality. They stand accused of narcissistically pouring out their stories, rather than shaping them - of being authors who have more problems than they have talent. They are arraigned for breaching decency, for being tasteless, self-important and exhibitionist. They may even be suspected of laziness. One of The Late Show's brightest critics, asked why there was such a vogue for memoirs, replied that they were simply easier to write. And this is a well-founded suspicion: fiction and poetry are hard to perfect; most journals do better to stay private.

Yet truth-telling is a quality we esteem in authors, especially when it can't be found in politicians, which is most of the time. And there are periods - this seems to be one - when there's a need for authenticity, a need to rest near a beating heart. Some books, in any period, demand to be fiction: if J G Ballard had written Crash as some version of autobiography, our interest in the issues he raises (cars, speed, celebrity, eroticism) would have turned to prurience instead. But other kinds of book compel us by getting down off their plinths and declaring their modest stature - by being small stories, not tall stories. There is nothing so exhilarating as reading fiction that has been thrown free of the author's life, that is driven entirely by invented characters and events. But the traditional disclaimer of novels, that the characters and events described bear no resemblance to living or actual ones, can look like cowardice if we suspect these are just passages from the author's life thinly disguised. Why wear a fancy dress if you look better with your clothes off? Let's be honest. Candour can be very sexy.

The American poet Robert Lowell discovered this, back in the 1960s and 1970s, with books such as Life Studies and The Dolphin, which incorporated slices of autobiography (and, more controversially, letters from his estranged wife Elizabeth Hardwick). Lowell was credited with founding a "confessional" school of poetry, along with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. But the genre goes much farther back, to Saint Augustine, whose Confessions repented both of childhood misdemeanours (such as stealing pears from an orchard) and of adult sins of the flesh (the year being 397, not 1997, the details were in short supply). Saint Augustine didn't think he was exposing himself unduly, since the all-seeing God whom he addressed knew the intimate truth about him already. But he hoped that by recounting his godless behaviour he might make other miserable sinners better people - that the error of his way would lead others to choose the path of righteousness. Some such do-gooding motive used to be behind most confessional literature, including, Jean Jacques Rousseau's (on sex and love) and Thomas De Quincey's (on addiction to opium): the revelation of the self is supposed to bring moral elevation to others. These days, the emphasis isn't moral but psychotherapeutic. With luck, one's own murky tale will help those with similar experiences, who might otherwise suffer in silence, thinking they're the only one - putting the book down, they will feel vindicated, validated, less pathological than they'd assumed.

In the US, the new literature of self-revelation is perceived as a female form, the result of women finding their identities and voices. Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (about incest), Elizabeth Wurzel's Prozac Nation, Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, Sallie Tisdale's Talk Dirty to Me (addiction to pornography) Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story and Jill Ciment's Half a Life (teenage delinquency) are prime examples. Behind them lie Maya Angelou's autobiographical volumes, the slogan "The personal is political", and the influence of women's groups in the 1970s and 1980s. In Britain, female confessionalism has been common enough in newspaper columns but (aside from Fiona Shaw's Out of Me, Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica, Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire and one or two others) rarer in book form. Instead, the talk here has been of a new generation of men "in touch with their feelings" who expose these feelings to an almost indecent degree.

Causing discomfort doesn't make a writer good, but good writing can often cause discomfort. Christopher Ricks once published a book called Keats and Embarrassment, about the blushfulness of Keats's poetry, and with confessional writing embarrassment is inescapable. We can feel awkward reading it in public, not because it's samizdat or (like porn, say) subliterary, but because we feel somehow exposed by it - as if by reading it any stranger sitting nearby would be able to read us. It may be we feel that the author has said things that would have been better left unsaid. But it may also be that he or she has disclosed awkward information about ourselves. Confessionalism is the art of the mirror, but the face in the glass can be ours as well as the author's, an image we recognise but would rather not see.

As this suggests, candour is a delicate business. To say "I'm not perfect, and I know you're not either" may be to stretch out a friendly hand, or merely presumptuous. When the exchange doesn't come off, the writer will feel grubby and the reader bullied. The famous "cleansing" process of catharsis is known by another name: "washing your dirty linen in public". Confessionalism has to know when to hold back. Honesty has to be worked at. "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing," said Wilde, "and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." Writers who confess merely in order to make themselves feel better are likely to leave their audiences feeling worse. It takes special charm in a writer to make us look into our own hearts, or history, to see if there's something comparable there. It takes art. Without art, confessionalism is masturbation. Only with art does it become empathy.

Many recent narrative non-fictions own up to weakness by telling tales of grief, breakdown, abuse, illness, depression and addiction. Almost all of them end on an upbeat note. Almost by definition, there has to be a happy ending: such "crisis memoirs" can be written only when the authors have put some distance between themselves and the material. This is emotion recollected in tranquillity or on tranquillizers - memoirs composed not on an alcohol- or drug-induced high but during recovery. They may seem to come straight from the heart, but they wouldn't exist had the authors not repossessed their minds. Their "I" isn't blind with turmoil and emotion, but rather the "I" of the storm, calm amid chaos, or else the "I" of the needle, precise and sharp. To write about the self's hot flushes, you have to be cold and detached.

It's important to emphasise this, because confessionalism is usually thought of as transparent and messy, a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. Perhaps the confessions heard during the Oprah Winfrey Show, or on radio phone-ins, or from garrulous cab drivers, are little more than a damburst of emotion. But even they depend on the telling of stories and the projection of a self. Confessional writers who want to offer their readers more than a cheap thrill must first create a trustworthy persona. Candour doesn't write itself straight from the heart; it's a device, requiring artfulness; to succeed, all trace of disingenuousness and self- delusion must be purged. Honesty is a policy, not an involuntary emission of naked ego. Sincerity is a trick, like any other. The process of being "truthful" as a writer is not unlike that of constructing a narrative voice in fiction.

It's no coincidence that one of the great narrative non-fiction books of the last 20 years, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, reads at times like a novel. It certainly begins like one, as a truck dramatically plunges over a cliff. Even when the narrator breaks the spell and explains that this all happened long ago, his isn't the calm, reflective voice of a man tidying up his early years but of somebody plunged back inside the adventure of being 10:

"It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck."

Tobias Wolff doesn't pretend he still is 10: we glimpse the frame of an adult perspective. But nor does he pretend he has it all worked out, and that is part of the attraction. Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, Wolff creates a voice we can trust.

One reason we trust both these narrators is that, far from pouring everything out, they're highly selective, have a sense of story, can be depended on to avoid the extraneous and cliched. As Holden Caulfield famously puts it:

"I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy."

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel written like a confession. This Boy's Life is a confession written like a novel. The differences between the two genres are real, but can also be much exaggerated. Both depend on the art of storytelling. And both depend on the construction (or reinvention) of a character who has become almost redundant in modern literature: the reliable narrator.

All fiction, it's been said, tends towards autobiography: think of Proust or Dickens. Yet most novelists, in interviews, are reluctant to surrender their autobiography fearing that if they do their life will become the story, the Ur-text, and the novels be read as a pale reflection or sub- plot. Recently, a number of novelists have turned to non-fiction not so much to write conventional autobiography as to brood over the real-life sources of their art. Kathryn Harrison, having written on the theme of incest in her novel Thicker Than Water, came back to it again, non-fictionally, in The Kiss, as if this were the "honest" way to tell her story, though some of the passages are almost identical. Philip Roth did something similar in Patrimony when he wrote about his father, Herman, having previously fictionalised him in various guises. What impelled Roth was a wish to pay tribute, his father having recently died; what impelled Harrison (whose father was alive to read her memoir) was more adversarial, even parricidal, as well as cathartic - the need to lay a family ghost. Both writers grasped that we read a story differently if we believe it to be true. In this country Jenny Diski has had the same insight: her Skating to Antarctica revisits in person, autobiographically, a number of episodes from her novels. Whether we can trust her in non-fictional mode is doubtful: the very title of her book suggests something fantastical. Can we trust Philip Roth, either? Can he even trust himself? A couple of years before Patrimony, he published The Facts, subtitled "a novelist's autobiography", which sprang, he said, from his "exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions, lies". Its preface, cast as a letter to his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, explains how:

"... in its uncompelling, unferocious way, the non-fictional approach has brought me closer to how experience actually felt than has turning the flame up under my life and smelting stories out of all I've known ... [A] book that faithfully conforms to the facts, a distillation of the facts that leaves off with the imaginative fury, can unlock meanings that fictionalising has obscured, distended, or even inverted and can drive home some sharp emotional nails."

It's a wonderful rationale for non-fiction. But Zuckerman, at the end of the book, answers back, accusing Roth of "de-imagining a life's work" and arguing that "the facts are much more refractory and unmanageable and inconclusive, and can actually kill the very sort of inquiry that imagination opens up."

A danger of the current fashion for caring-sharing non-fiction is we'll forget that epiphanies of recognition are part of fiction, too. The "Yes, I know that feeling!" feeling which we get from good writing doesn't depend on the author personally having had the experience described or from the reader having had it either. What authenticates isn't fact but art. Ian McEwan's A Child in Time begins with a brilliant description of a father losing his child in a supermarket. Whether McEwan himself, as a father, went through a similar ordeal is irrelevant; whether his readers have is also irrelevant; it's the power of the writing that makes the experience familiar and identifiable with. Richard Ford's Independence Day includes a stunning episode during which the hero, Frank Bascombe, is party to an accident involving the teenage son he had by his now estranged wife. As it happens, Richard Ford does not have children. It doesn't matter. The scene works by plausibly imagining. Ford himself was never there but he makes us feel that we were. We believe in his invented truth.

Yet autobiographical facts inevitably make a difference to how we read. If it were discovered tomorrow that Wordsworth had grown up in Sussex, not the Lake District, The Prelude would be no less magnificent, but it wouldn't be the same poem: the understanding between Wordsworth and his readers that it's autobiographically truthful would have been violated. Non-fiction always implies some such understanding. When Harold Brodkey wrote a piece for the New Yorker that began "I have Aids", readers were moved; they'd not have been moved if it had turned out Brodkey was making this up, though they knew him to be a writer of fiction. There have been other interesting non-fictional books about illness and death in recent years: Joseph Heller's No Laughing Matter, Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses, Ben Watt's Patient, Jean Dominique Bauby's The Diving-bell and the Butterfly. The claims they make on us depend on our conviction that their ordeals really did happen as described. There have been columns of this kind, too - Oscar Moore on having Aids, Ruth Picardie and John Diamond on having cancer. Perhaps illness and death are special cases, requiring solemn observation of category lines. Certainly there'd be a sense of outrage if these writers had secretly been enjoying good health.

Away from hospital, it's possible to be more playful. When Paul Theroux published a book with the title My Other Life he called it a novel just as he had his earlier My Secret History. But the main character is a novelist called Paul Theroux, whose background bears a striking resemblance to that of the real Paul Theroux, also a novelist. Other characters in the book include Anthony Burgess and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as some whose real-life lineaments are recognisable but whose names have been changed. Whether any, some or all of the events described actually happened or not, Theroux isn't telling. Or rather he is telling, story-telling, asking us to enjoy his book for its own sake without worrying overmuch whether it's true. This isn't something every reader will feel able to do. Thomas Hardy once said that there was an "infinite mischief" in "the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions".Certainly, Theroux is being mischievous when he writes in his preface: "As for the other I, the Paul Theroux who looks like me - he is just a fellow wearing a mask. It is the writer's privilege to keep some facades intact and use his own face in the masquerade. It was the only area in which I took no liberties. The man is fiction, but the mask is real." This preface is signed "PT", which could be a confession of authorship but might stand for "prick-tease" or even "post-modern trick". It is a tricksy preface, yet the texture of the stories themselves is old-fashioned, intimate, dependable. They seem honest. Even if they're not honest, they're true.

"All the best stories are true" ran the logo to a non-fiction award a few years ago. The slogan is seductive, but it's equally arguable that all the best stories (Aesop, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Grimm, Tolstoy) are made up. Great fiction, by carrying readers along with it, by informing and enticing and absorbing them, creates its own truth - truth that may be truer than the truest memoirs. Some memoirs of public life are notorious for their economy with recorded fact. Memoirs of private life (and most recent narrative non-fiction is of this kind) aren't easily checkable in that way, yet are assumed to have reliable narrators. A little wariness seems appropriate, since memoirs depend on memories, which are often false. When an author recalls in exhaustive detail a scene from 30 years ago we may wonder if it happened exactly that way.

If we don't wonder, it's because the narrator has convinced us of his honesty. The narrator may be an invention, made real merely through words set down in a certain order on the page. But if he bears the same name as the author, in effect seems to be the author, the reader will be more inclined to trust him. This is the special contract which non-fiction offers, and once it has been established the reader will feel uneasy if something appears to be made up. As Janet Malcolm puts it in her book The Journalist and the Murderer, a novelist

" ... is master of his own house and may do what he likes with it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined ... But the writer of non-fiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house - and its name is Actuality - as he found it ...

I speak about the limitation on a non-fiction writer's scope for invention as if it were a burden, when, in fact, it is what makes his work so much less arduous. Where the novelist has to start from scratch and endure the terrible labour of constructing a world, the non-fiction writer gets his world ready-made ... The reader extends a kind of credit to the writer of non-fiction which he doesn't extend to the writer of fiction ..."

Janet Malcolm may exaggerate when she says that we read non-fiction "in a more lenient spirit than a work of imaginative literature", but perhaps it's true that we don't look for the same architectural subtleties. The overwhelmingly important thing is the content, or felt life; "style", in certain contexts at least (the description of a death, for example) may be resented as indecent and will certainly raise questions (as an equivalent description of a death in fiction wouldn't), about the author's motivation and possible culpability. None the less, overtly or otherwise, good non-fiction does inevitably employ many of the devices of fiction: narrative, characterisation, suspense, surprise, and a sense of beginning- middle- end. The truth must be there, but it may come refracted rather than straight and it won't be the whole truth. Setting down words on paper can enable an author to say things which he or she wouldn't have the courage to speak aloud, in person. Nevertheless, the disclosure of the self is firmly in the author's control.

In other words, selectivity and detachment are as much a part of confessionalism as other forms of writing. However frank the tone, what's revealed in the final draft will often be more self-dramatising than it is self-revealing: the author pares his or her fingernails while seeming to let it all hang out. Susan Sontag has said "Some people are their lives, others merely inhabit them", and if you're in the latter camp, as many writers are, there's a distance that enables you to dissect yourself without it hurting. The most non-fictional of passages can feel, as they're being written, like fiction: what the reader finds shockingly intimate may have seemed to the author strangely impersonal. In As If, a book about children, childhood and the Bulger case, I describe having an erection when a small child (gender unspecified) sits in my lap. Naively, perhaps, I was shocked that people were shocked by the passage; there was no controversy when a Martin Amis character describes the same experience in The Information. One scene may be invented, and the other not, but presumably the phenomenon itself isn't an invention: both narrators are discomfited by it - erections may produce children, but children aren't supposed to produce erections - and it's the discomfiture which both authors explore. In My Father and Myself, J R Ackerley speaks of "this life I am prowling about in [as if] it were someone else's and I its historian". It's a good description of how memoir and autobiography operate.

In the end, the difference between fiction and non-fiction is not so much a matter of lies versus truth, but of reading habits. When we think a story hasn't been invented, there's an extra frisson in reading it - a frisson which an author can exploit. To be brutal, it sometimes helps not to make things up. I think it helped me when I wrote a book called And When Did You Last See Your Father?, about my father's death from cancer. Writing a novel based on the experience - a narrator-son a bit like me, a father based on my father - seemed, in the end, inappropriate, so I tried to stick to the facts, even though this risked upsetting relations and friends. "Sticking to the facts" didn't preclude me changing one or two names, however, including the name of a woman with whom my father had had a long relationship: the relationship, and my attempts to understand it, went into the book, but the woman acquired a new name to be saved from prying. There were other liberties taken: a scene in a tea shop, described as taking place on the date I went to register my feather's death, happened months later in a different part of the country, while I was writing the book. Being truthful, I sensed, meant being true to the book's form, its themes and structure, as well as to the facts.

Some critics have argued that non-fiction encourages sloppier reading habits, inimical to the stringency and intensity of imaginative literature. Others have complained that the novel has had to resort to faction, or doc-fic, in order to survive. Certainly many successful "literary" novels of recent years - for example, Pat Barker's First World War trilogy, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Seamus Deane's seemingly autobiographical Reading in the Dark - depend on "real" historical events and characters. But there is nothing new about novelists doing this: Defoe and George Eliot did it, too. Nor is there anything new in predictions of the death of the novel because of competition from other forms: each autumn, round the time of the Booker Prize, dire prophecies fill the columns and airwaves. Thankfully, the novel is far too robust to be forced out of business, least of all by non-fiction. This isn't a fight to the death. It isn't even a contest. Writers can be competitive animals, but in the end the only struggle is against themselves (to find the right words, to complete the bookthat needed to be written), not against other writers or genres.

The problem with fiction is being able to shrug it off: "Why should I care about this stuff? It's all made up." The problem with non-fiction is being unable to shrug it off, even if you'd prefer to: "Do we have to be told this? I'd really rather not know." But in the end, both novels and memoirs have to be judged for their interest as stories. And for that what counts isn't honesty but narrative skill.

8 This is the title essay in 'Too True', Blake Morrison's collection of stories and journalism, published by Granta on 23 April at pounds 9.99